Coronavirus, 100 days that changed the face of Italy

The 31st of May was the 100th day since Italy’s first coronavirus case. Some of the most important moments that have left their mark on the country.

On the 21st of February 2020, a 38-year-old man from Codogno, in the province of Lodi, not far from Milan, became the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Italy. Everything was about to change in the country, and it took its citizens some time to truly come to terms with this. Here are some of the most important moments that marked the course of the first one hundred days since the virus’ “discovery”, as well as some of the lessons learned that will hopefully lead to a better future both for ourselves and the planet.


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January – February 2020

This year marks the beginning of a decisive decade in the fight against the climate crisis. It’s our last chance to turn things around as we have less than ten years to repair the damage inflicted upon the planet and reverse the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources. On the 31st of December 2019, the harm we’ve caused so far was about to turn against us.

On that day, at 13:59, the Chinese government announces the discovery of several cases of “pneumonia of unknown cause” originating from a wet market in Wuhan, in Hubei Province. Over a matter of weeks, the number of cases in China rises significantly, as well as the number of deaths. The cause is the novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2. The virus causes the disease Covid-19, whose symptoms are very similar to those associated with the flu, and it’s thought that it was passed onto human beings by some of the animals killed and sold at the market. The situation spirals so dramatically out of control that the authorities decide to put off New Year celebrations – one of the country’s biggest holidays – and close all public spaces. In addition, emergency hospitals are built in record time to cope with the enormous and constantly growing number of cases and deaths.

In a world where the step from the local to the global is smaller than ever, it’s only matter of time before the virus starts to spread with devastating consequences the world over.

Read more: Coronavirus and wildlife, can zoonotic diseases decimate the illegal trade in wild animals?

coronavirus, china, Huoshenshan Hospital, Wuhan
Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan was built at record speed to respond to the developing coronavirus health crisis © Getty Images

The beginning

Friday 21 February

On Friday the 21st of February, SARS-CoV-2 is officially diagnosed in Italy for the first time. The news no one wanted to hear makes its way onto the front pages of national newspapers: “Coronavirus, first case confirmed in Codogno. The man hasn’t been to China”. Mattia Maestri had been taken to hospital a few days prior because of respiratory issues, initially diagnosed as “bilateral pneumonia”. He hadn’t been to China recently, he was athletic and in good health, so there was no cause to suspect he might be suffering from Covid-19. The discovery that some weeks beforehand he’d seen a friend who works in Shanghai is only made thanks to a nurse’s thoroughness. And so, a test is administered.

This is the decisive moment in which Italy officially records its first case of coronavirus. Everyone who had been in contact with Maestri is put into isolation and all his interactions are retraced in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus. That afternoon, the first of many daily press conferences – headed, among others, by Attilio Fontana, the President of Lombardy Region, Giulio Gallera, the region’s Welfare Minister and Roberto Speranza, Italy’s Health Minister – is held at Palazzo Lombardia, in the regional capital, Milan. The situation is tense but seems to be under control, for the time being.

Coronavirus in Italy
The first case of coronavirus in Italy was confirmed on the 21st of February 2020 © Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images

Italy’s first coronavirus death and Lombardy’s first lockdown

Saturday 22 – Sunday 23 February

Another worrying turn of events takes places during the night of Saturday the 22nd of February. A 78-year-old man dies from coronavirus. His name is Adriano Trevisan, from Vo’ Euganeo in the province of Padua. The man had been hospitalised ten days earlier because of pre-existing health conditions, but his situation deteriorated so quickly that “there wasn’t enough time to transfer him,” in the words of Luca Zaia, the President of Veneto Region. New cases are confirmed in Lombardy, Piedmont, and Veneto, northern Italy’s three largest regions. The numbers start growing so quickly that it’s almost hard to keep track.

On Sunday the 23rd of February, Italy’s cabinet passes the first in a long series of legislative decrees aimed at containing the spread of the virus and managing the “Covid-19 epidemiological emergency”. Fontana approves a decree – valid across the whole of Lombardy – that suspends public gatherings, closes all schools, and partially shuts down bars and restaurants. It’s the beginning of confinement, quarantine, lockdown: a series of measures that will paralyse the entire country over the following weeks.

Coronavirus decree in Lombardy
Many Serie A football matches were suspended following the decree establishing the first lockdown measures in Lombardy © Laura Lezza/Getty Images

Italy becomes third, after China and South Korea, for number of cases

24 February – 1 March

“The virus travels faster than we do,” Angelo Borrelli, Head of the Italian Civil Protection, tells one of the country’s main newspapers, Repubblica. In less than a week, Italy becomes the third country in the world for number of cases, behind China and South Korea. A “red zone” is established around the worst-affected municipalities: no one can enter or leave, and a capillary system of infection control is instituted. The atmosphere at the daily press conferences detailing the crisis reflects that felt across the country: one of tension, confusion and a bit of fear.

Police checks during coronavirus crisis
A red zone was drawn around the municipalities worst-affected by coronavirus © Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images

We shouldn’t be afraid of animals but of what we’re doing to their habitats

1 March

The month of March starts with a newfound awareness that though coronavirus may have come from animals, the main problem is the destruction of habitats on the part of human beings. 70 per cent of the new diseases that have emerged in the last thirty years have been of zoonotic origin. Most of these come from wild areas but others still originate in factory farming facilities, which represent a serious danger to public health, as the swine flu and bird flu epidemics demonstrate. The responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic, therefore, lies unquestionably with human beings. A healing process can only take place if we choose to repair our relationship with nature.

Read more: How factory farming breeds deadly viruses and epidemics

In our interview with Ilaria Capua – a virologist, veterinarian and professor at the University of Florida renowned for her studies on flu viruses such as bird flu – she urges us to act intelligently, because to the coronavirus we’re just another host animal to infect. “Its closest ‘family member’ can be found in bats,” she tells us. “The virus used to be restricted to bats in the jungle, but it suddenly moved to live animal markets. In these rudimentary facilities faeces, urine, and butchery waste abound, as was the case for many European markets in the 1940s and 1950s – with the difference that many different animal species interact in them. For example, Chinese markets sell pangolins, snakes and frogs. Therefore, an unnatural scenario developed in which the jungle bats were exposed to other animals that amplified the virus, modifying it to the point that it was able to be passed onto human beings”. Essentially, a jump from one species to another occurred, known as spillover. Once more, we’re reminded that the cause of the epidemic is to be found in ourselves.

You can’t go wrong if you respect nature, and in fact we need to respect it more.Ilaria Capua
Animal market in the city of Shenzen, China
Mammals and birds are the most widely traded wildlife species, followed by reptiles © AFP via Getty Images

The contagion curve surges, Lombardy and 14 provinces are shut down

2 – 8 March

The first week of March is pivotal. The contagion curve sees an unprecedented surge, passing 5,000 units. Deaths are also rising rapidly, increasing by a factor of seven in just a week. The government decides to adopt a series of drastic measures in an attempt to contain the nationwide spread of coronavirus. The first step is to “shut down” Lombardy and 14 other provinces across the regions of Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Marche, which leads to widespread panic.

On the night between the 7th and 8th March, train stations are besieged by people trying to get back to their hometowns. They’re terrified by the prospect of having to be separated from their loved ones during a time that’s shaping up to be one of the hardest in living memory. By doing this, however, they’re just helping the virus to spread. An investigation carried out by Repubblica shows that on that night, 20 per cent of passengers alighting from night trains headed to Puglia, in the south of the country, have a temperature.

The lockdown starts and gatherings are banned. Coronavirus is declared a pandemic

9 – 15 March

“In time, given our recommendations, we’ll find all of this again. Hospitalisations, including in intensive care units, as well as deaths are increasing. Therefore, our habits need to change. Starting from now. We all have to make sacrifices for the good of our country. And we have to do it now”. With these words, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte begins his press conference on Monday the 9th of March, the first of many over the coming months. In it, he announces that the whole of Italy is considered a protected area, a status resulting in the banning of all non-essential travel. In the following days, the measures become even more restrictive and Italy – like China before it – falls into an almost “familiar” lockdown, a sad routine that will continue for months to come. The key slogan is “io resto a casa” (I’m staying home) as avoiding gatherings being a necessary condition to flatten the curve and stop the spread of the pandemic.

In short, without these strict measures, hospitals would have reached their breaking point in a matter of days, leading to the rapid filling of all intensive care beds and leaving many people without the possibility of treatment. The contagion curve would have increased exponentially and in a short span of time the entire population would have contracted the virus, even if asymptomatically. This would have been disastrous for Italy, especially considering that the percentage of people over the age of 65, those most at risk, is the highest in Europe: 35.7 per cent, according to Eurostat.

Social distancing becomes the only way for people to protect themselves and those around them. Italians, however, find a way to show they’re still united, starting a trend that will be praised and replicated around the world. At 18:00 every evening people go out onto their balconies to sing, dance and play music together. It’s a moment for everyone to share a sense of togetherness despite social distancing.

On Wednesday the 11th of March, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declares that the coronavirus has reached the status of a pandemic. At this time, there are 118,000 confirmed cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people have lost their lives. But the situation will only get worse. In the days following the announcement of the nationwide lockdown, Italian cities are emptied, their atmosphere eerie and surreal. Life in public spaces is put on hold, shutters are lowered, offices closed, events cancelled and people lock themselves in their homes, in the hope that this contributes to the situation being as transitory as possible.

Piazza San Marco, Venice
Piazza San Marco, Venice © Marco di Lauro/Getty Images

The number of deaths in Italy surpasses China. Europe closes its borders

16 – 22 March

Midway through March the number of deaths caused by coronavirus in Italy surpasses 2,000, increasing by almost 400 in a single day. The figure is unsettling, considering it’s higher than any day-to-day increase recorded in China at the peak of the epidemic. Given the ever-growing number of cases worldwide, the European Union prohibits entry to anyone coming from outside its borders for 30 days.

At this stage, the worst-hit area in Italy is no longer Codogno but the province of Bergamo, in particular the towns of Nembro and Alzano Lombardo. On the 18th of March, unforgettable, harrowing images are broadcast from the area: a long, seemingly infinite procession of military vehicles crossing the centre of Bergamo carrying the coffins of coronavirus victims that the city’s cemeteries can no longer take in. The country stands united in the pain provoked by this devastating sight, perhaps the first time the scale of the situation becomes fully clear. Even international organisations offer aid to the national health service: Emergency sets up a field hospital in Bergamo, aided by the Alpini corps, the Civil Protection and volunteers from Confartigianato, as well as providing mobile structures and contact points across the territory to provide assistance to those most in need.

Solidarity as a vaccine and Pope Francis’ words

23 – 29 March

The Civil Protection body’s press conferences mark each passing day. Other than that, for the whole of March time seems to have come to a standstill. A common thread runs through this week’s briefings, one that will continue for the rest of the lockdown: in times like these, solidarity is what makes all the difference, it’s almost like a vaccine. International, European but especially national solidarity are discussed, the Civil Protection sets up a support fund for donations and in a few days the staggering figure of 25 million euros (22 million US dollars) is raised. This money will be spent on materials including PPE, such as masks, and for intensive care units, such as respirators. Borrelli is so moved by this generosity that he struggles to find the words to express his gratitude.

On the 27th of March, Pope Francis makes a memorable speech to an empty Saint Peter’s Square. “We weren’t shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we’d stay healthy in a world that was sick,” he decries as the rain falls on the empty square. The raindrops feel like the tears of the ailing planet, and the gloomy atmosphere gives Pope’s words a grim sense of pathos.

Ultimately, we can’t expect to keep exploiting nature without paying the price. Isabella Pratesi, Director of Conservation for WWF Italia, reminds us of this fact, warning that new pandemics are lying in wait. “We must rethink the way we use natural resources,” she tells us in the podcast we recorded to explore Italy’s recovery after the crisis. “We can’t do without them but we have to use them intelligently, protecting natural capital, i.e. the natural assets that produce these resources. If we destroy this capital we will literally go bankrupt, with nothing left to sustain our existence”.

The paradigm has to change. Meanwhile, animals take advantage of deserted cities

31 March – 5 April

On the 1st of April it’s announced that the COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, will be postponed to 2021 due to the ongoing health emergency. The preparatory sessions, which were going to be held in Milan, are also delayed. But Sergio Costa, Italy’s Environment Minister, isn’t disheartened by the news, stating during a press conference that work towards a European Green New Deal must press on. In fact, this process should go ahead with even more energy and urgency than before because the climate crisis won’t just disappear.

“In post-Covid times, we’ll necessarily have to accelerate considerations that were being made before already. The economic paradigm has to change, sustainability has to become the backbone of a new way of understanding social relations and production,” he tells us during the 6th Italian Observatory on Sustainable Lifestyles, LifeGate’s yearly survey on Italians’ attitudes towards sustainability.

Around this time, a number of viral videos emerge showing groups of animals walking unperturbed through empty city streets. This brings light to the debate on the role of humans in relation to the planet: without humans, animals take back control of their habitats, plants prosper, air quality improves, the planet lives. “We’re the virus,” is the slogan taken up by many who share these beliefs.

A goat walking through Llandudno, Wales
A goat takes advantage of the lockdown to go for a stroll through the empty streets of a small town in Conwy county, Wales © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

While the desire to start over grows stronger, the lockdown is extended

6 – 12 April

The beginning of this week is accompanied by an ever-growing desire to start over. People miss hugs, chatting while holding a glass of wine and going for walks with their friends. It’s really starting to hurt, especially with spring in bloom and summer on the way. But the lockdown weighs heaviest on the economy. Marco Barbieri, Secretary General of Confcommercio in Milan, tells us that “Milan’s businesses, and those in the wider metropolitan area, have suffered greatly during phase one. Data concerning the lockdown is grim: 90 per cent of businesses have suffered 100 per cent revenue losses due to closures. These wounds won’t be easy to heal but the desire to get back up on our feet and start again in phase two is strong”.

Empty streets in Bergamo during lockdown
The lockdown had taken its toll on the national economy © Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Some good news comes out of China on the 8th of April: the lockdown in Wuhan has officially ended. It’s a sign that things will get better, even though Italy is still a month behind the trend.

In fact, on the 10th of April, Prime Minister Conte decides to extend restrictions until the 3rd of May at least. “We can’t undo the efforts made so far,” he admits, sombrely, at a press conference. Italians are feeling broken, their economy and morale destroyed by the fact that the end of the lockdown, which feels like it’s going on forever, isn’t yet in sight. At the same time, recovery does feel closer. The PM creates a task force dedicated to phase two led by Vittorio Colao, “one of Italy’s most respected managers, even internationally,” which includes “experts, dignitaries, sociologists, psychologists, labour organisers and managers”. Their goal is to draw up a plan to lift the country up once the lockdown ends. The team also includes Enrico Giovannini, spokesperson for the Italian Alliance for Sustainable Development (ASVIS), and Donatella Bianchi, President of WWF Italia.

A Harvard study links pollution to Covid-19 deaths and FFF writes a letter to Italy

13 – 19 April

On the 13th of April, another revelation confirms the correlation between anthropic activities and Covid-19 related deaths. A study conducted by Harvard University in the US highlights the link between air pollution and coronavirus mortality. An increase of just 1 microgramme per cubic metre of PM2.5 – particles with a diameter of 2.5 μm or less – corresponds to a 15 per cent increase in mortality rates linked to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Silvio Brusaferro, President of the Italian National Institute (ISS), calls the it “an absolutely solid study, which beckons an important reflection”. Meanwhile, several videos visibly showing changes in air quality due to the lockdown, including in Milan, go viral.

On the 18th of April, Italian youths belonging to Fridays for Future, an international movement known for organising climate action strikes founded by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, write an open letter to their nation, calling for a sustainable recovery from the pandemic in order to avoid falling victim to another disastrous global epidemic in the future.

Italy’s cases fall for the first time and Milan launches an ambitious mobility plan

20 – 26 April

Monday the 20th of April brings good news and hope. For the first time since the epidemic started to spread across Italy, the number of active cases of Covid-19 decreases. Similarly, the total number of people in intensive care units also falls whilst that of recovered patients grows. Things are starting to change, the measures are working. As expressed by Conte, people’s efforts haven’t been in vain.

On the 21st of April, Milan City Council shows that it has understood the importance of protecting the environment and promoting a sustainable post-Covid recovery. The Strade Aperte (Open Roads) plan is revealed: one of the most ambitious mobility schemes in Europe, whose goal is to significantly reduce car use in phase two. By this summer, 35 kilometres of roads will be converted into bike lanes and new pedestrian areas will be created. The initiative garners praise from all over the world: Thunberg’s endorsement and enthusiasm stand out in particular.

On the 26th of April, Conte introduces the decree detailing phase two: Italy will reopen in two waves, one starting on the 4th of May and one on the 18th. It’s only a matter of days now until the end of lockdown, but they feel like months.

Read more: Strade Aperte, how Milan plans to reduce cars as coronavirus restrictions are eased

The centre of Milan, almost empty during lockdown
The lockdown in Italy ended in two waves, the first starting on the 4th of May © Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Italy reopens, tentatively

Monday 4 May

Phase two officially starts on Monday the 4th of May. Wholesale trade, manufacturing and construction restart. People can exercise outside, visit public parks, gardens and villas. Bars and restaurants can reopen for takeaways. Visits to family members are now permitted. All of this has to be done while abiding to hygiene and health regulations, with the knowledge that if the contagion curve starts rising, lockdown will have to be imposed once again. It’s not much, perhaps less than many would have wanted, but it’s enough to give people a small taste of freedom.

A restaurant during Italy's lockdown
Italy started opening up again on the 4th of May © Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Phase two gets underway with new decrees and a new normal

11 – 17 May

On the 13th of May, the government issues the “Relaunch” decree to give the economy a boost, also adding a new law to regularise illegal migrants which will only be valid for six months, applying exclusively to labourers, housekeepers and carers, and those who were already working in 2019. The decree also establishes subsidies for purchasing bikes and electric scooters, with the aim of encouraging citizens to use safe, non-polluting vehicles and as an alternative to gathering on public transport. The initiative is a success, as shown by the many photos of queues outside bike shops.

On the 16th of May Conte makes the announcement that people have been waiting to hear for weeks. A new decree relaxes measures further; people feel great relief. From Monday the 18th of May Italians will be able to move freely within their regions, and shops and businesses will reopen, with the country heading towards a “new normal”. “New”, because the “old” normal is what led us into this situation in the first place. Of course, safety measures still have to be complied with, as will be the case for a long time still.

"Everything will be alright"
A banner saying “everything will be alright”, one of the expressions that captured the spirit of the lockdown, in Rome © Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

100 days

31 May

Sunday the 31st of May marks 100 days since the crisis took root in Italy. During that time, 33,000 people lost their lives and at least 230,000 became infected with Covid-19.

“At least 230,000,” because it’s believed that the figure could be much higher. The Institute of International Political Studies has estimated that the number of cases may have reached 3 million.

Matteo Villa, one of the researchers who re-examined the official figures, spoke to us about the issue. “Data from the Civil Protection body provides a snapshot of reality, even if a partial one. Essentially, it seems to suggest that one in seven people who contract the virus – that is about 13 per cent of the total – lose their lives. In reality, we know that the virus kills only 1 per cent of the people who become infected with it. This isn’t to diminish its seriousness, especially considering that seasonal flu kills only 0.1 per cent of those who get it, i.e. one person per thousand. SARS-CoV-2 kills one in a hundred, so it’s ten times more deadly, but its mortality rate is definitely not 13 per cent. What does this mean? It means that we need to amend the Civil Protection’s numbers in order to uncover the real number of cases in Italy. The figures today suggest that infections are around 200,000, but really we’re probably closer to 2.5, maybe 3 million people. To summarise: the numbers give us a partial picture, but it’s still important because by applying certain calculations we can work out the actual scale of infections. It’s important to remember, however, that it’s not just Italy’s official numbers that are mistaken, but those of all Western countries. In the initial phase of exposure to the virus, they lost count to some extent and if we apply the same reasoning to Belgium, Spain and France, it appears that pretty much everyone has underestimated the true extent of the epidemic by at least a factor of ten”.

A cemetery in Rome during the coronavirus pandemic
Practically all European countries have underestimated the scale of the pandemic © Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Epilogue: the end of lockdown

3 June

No critical situation”. These three simple words, pronounced on the 29th of May by Italian PM Giuseppe Conte, put a definitive end to the country’s lockdown. Starting from Wednesday the of 3rd June people are able to move freely throughout the country, with restrictions finally being lifted after three months.

A moment of affection during the pandemic
The 3rd of June marked the end of lockdown in Italy © Stringer/Getty Images

The crossroads that this pandemic has brought us to will determine the future of the humanity on this planet. Our abuse of nature has contributed to causing the worst environmental, health and economic crisis in history.

Solidarity is a key aspect of Italian identity, as proven time and again throughout the emergency. The men and women in the national health service never backed down, even when faced with the most critical conditions. A great many people donated funds to hospitals, took care of homeless people and started hundreds of small local initiatives that made a real difference in the lives of so many people, even if most didn’t necessarily make the headlines. Solidarity lies within all of us and it’s something we build upon day after day, as the coronavirus has shown.

The time has come, now, to manifest the same solidarity with regards to our planet. To stop abusing nature and stop acting as if its resources are limitless; by choosing clean means of transport and especially making more compassionate choices when choosing what to eat.

This long-form is based on articles published on LifeGate between 21 February and 30 May written by Andrea BaroliniCecilia BergamascoLorenzo Brenna Tommaso Perrone

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